Caring responses from support people can help prevent or lessen ongoing trauma and are a crucial element of the healing process. Support can mean many things, and take many forms.
Some people who have survived sexual violence may want someone to simply listen with compassion.
If the assault was recent they may want someone to accompany them to see a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE), to the emergency room, or a clinic to receive medical attention and/or to collect forensic evidence.
Others may want someone who can support them long-term. This could include checking in regularly to see how they are doing, providing emotional support if they decide to report to the police and engage in the legal system, or accompanying them to counselling appointments.
The person you are supporting may not know what they need right away, and that is okay.
Everyone is different, and each victim/survivor will have different experiences and needs. The following tips are meant to serve as a foundation to help you understand how to foster safer, caring, and non-judgmental interactions between yourself and the person you are supporting.
It likely took courage for the person you are supporting to tell you that they have been sexually violated. Many victims/survivors worry that people will not believe them. You can reassure the victim/survivor that you believe them, that they are not alone, and that you are there to listen to and support them.
Doing so acknowledges the courage it probably took to tell you about the assault and may help them feel validated in their decision to disclose.
The person you are supporting might be feeling confused, afraid, angry, sad or any other combination of emotions. Assure them that their feelings are natural and common by saying something such as: “Your anger is completely legitimate,” “it’s ok to feel that way, ”or “you are not alone.”
Due to the prevalence of victim-blaming, many people who have survived sexual violence feel guilt or shame, or blame themselves.
You can tell them that many people have these emotions, and it’s okay for them to express those types of thoughts and feelings to you. Also let them know that they have nothing to be ashamed of and they did nothing to cause the sexual violence.
It is key to give people who have been subjected to sexual violence control over all decisions related to their recovery. This includes how they want to be supported. This is part of restoring a sense of power and control to the victim/survivor, something that was taken away when someone chose to violate them.
People who have survived sexual violence respond in many different ways.
If someone tells you that they have survived sexual violence, they may be visibly upset or completely calm. People respond to traumatic situations in different ways, including the ways that someone copes and the ways in which they express emotions. Some people need time to process their feelings.
If someone seems calm and composed, this does not mean that they have not been violated. It could mean that they feel numb or that they are in shock. Do not judge them or make assumptions based on how they seem on the surface. No matter how the person is responding, what they need from you is your support and your compassion.
If the sexual violence was recent, you will need to address the victim/survivor’s immediate needs in regards to safety and medical attention. You can start by asking if they are safe and if they need medical attention.
If the person is in immediate danger, work with them to get them out of that situation. This could include calling 911. Remember, however, that some people may not feel comfortable or safe calling the police following an assault (and in general) and may not want you to call 911.
After an assault, a person may want to seek medical attention for the following: physical injuries, pregnancy (testing, emergency contraception and counselling regarding pregnancy options including abortion), tests and treatments for Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), and HIV testing and treatment. If the assault(s) took place within the last five days, the victim/survivor will be able to access the services of a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE).
One of the best things you can do as a support person is to help the victim/survivor feel empowered to make informed decisions. You can explore options with them, but it is important to give them space to make the decisions that they feel are right.
You can review options with the victim/survivor; however, you should not try to influence their decision(s). It is critical that they are in control of what happens next. This is key to restoring someone’s sense of power and control over their body and their life following sexual violence.
Sometimes people may not take the course of action that you feel is best. You may not understand their decision. It is their decision and it is important that you respect the choices they make.
It’s important not to push the victim/survivor to do anything they are not ready or don’t want to do. This includes telling the police. Whether or not someone reports sexual violence to the police is a personal decision. Again, we must trust that the victim/survivor knows what is best for them.
If, however, a victim/survivor tells you that they are ready to search out additional support, you can help them sort through their options.